Four Lies of Perfectionism that Rob You of Joy

We all want joy and contentment. Much of that desire is God-given; before things in the world went terribly awry, we were created to live in perfect peace and harmony with our own selves, the world around us, our role in the world, and our relationships with others. It’s a longing for heaven, which means it won’t be fulfilled until we get there. Living in a broken world, there is then a danger in pursuing forms of perfection as a means to joy in the here and now. If you’re like me, you’ve found yourself exhausted, frustrated or discouraged from this pursuit time and time again. It’s important to recognize the lies about perfectionism so that we don’t sacrifice our hearts pursuing what will never deliver; instead, we learn to look to and rest in the Perfect One who alone can be our sufficiency when all else fails.

1.) Lie: The reason you lack joy and fulfillment is because you have not achieved as much as those “ahead” of you. Attaining to perfect life achievements is what will bring you joy.

Truth: The place where you believe you will feel you have “arrived” is an illusion; it will never be enough.

We live in an age where the charmed life seems to be all around us. Even for Christians, we can fall into a subtle trap of boasting about “blessings” without realizing we’ve simply thrown a Christian label on our charmed life posts. The result is the same: falling for the “best life now” illusion, hook, line and sinker. Once I achieve that level of success in my career. Once I become that Instafamous. Once I move on from singleness to marriage. Once I enter into (or get out of!) that season of parenthood. Then I’ll feel fulfilled. We don’t realize – or fully believe – there are challenges and new issues of discontentment tied to the role “ahead.” This is why Ecclesiastes tells us,

“So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” Ecclesiastes 2:9-11, 24-25

As I wrote in an earlier post about experiencing restlessness in the pursuit of our dreams, nothing is owed to me, but grace is given for today to enjoy what is before us here and now.

2.) Lie: If people around you sing your praises with enough quantity and consistency, you will find lasting joy. Being perfect in the eyes of others is what will bring you joy.

Truth: The praise of people really isn’t all it’s cut out to be, and it can’t keep up with the neediness of your ego.

When we fall for this lie, we are always looking for something new, something better, something funnier, something flashier, to keep the stream of praises flowing our way. We should sense a red flag if we feel unsettled when there is too quiet a pause in the praise. The praise of people can be addicting; beware of placing the weight of your self-worth on its shoulders. It can rise and fall with trends, attention spans, moods, and others’ own insecurities and issues. Its supply often has more to do with others and less to do with you. Truly, the only One who is more than able to bear the weight of all of your self is Christ.

3.) Lie: Having perfect harmony and avoiding conflict in relationships will bring you joy.

Truth: We have to come to grips with the fact that healthy relationships, particularly the closest ones, will inevitably include conflict. It’s learning to work through the conflict – while guarding a safe place for one another – that brings about deeper love, a fuller experience of grace and forgiveness, and stronger character.

While it’s true we need general health in our relationships, we need to be careful not to equate “healthy” with “conflict-free.” I’ve never felt so much ongoing ‘conflict’ in my relationships as I do now that I am navigating the parental authority role with two toddlers whose job it is to constantly challenge me as they grow into themselves. It is impossible to avoid a clashing of will or personality, and for this peace-loving people-pleaser, it can be relationally confusing and exhausting. That is, until I come back to the realization that it’s not the absence of relational conflict that will bring me true joy. Because in my core, what I really want in my relationships is not to be conflict-free, but to be loving, patient, godly, self-sacrificing, renewed in spirit. These attributes are gold, but they only come about one way: Through the often-painful refinement experienced in working through the relational conflicts, big and small.

4.) Lie: When you are at your worst, you cannot be truly loved. Being a perfect self is what will bring you joy.

Truth: When you are at your worst, it is the most profound time to realize how deeply, unconditionally, and perfectly loved you are.

This lie encapsulates all the others, because we tie up our life achievements, our public image, and our closest relationships, with our very selves. So fundamentally, the perfectionists in us will be tempted to pursue perfection of self in the pursuit of joy.

What then, when we have bad moments, as everyone does? I mean, really bad moments. I mean, your worst moments when you’ve totally lost your rational mind and you’re throwing the tantrum of a 3.5 year old, but you lack the excuse that this behavior is developmentally appropriate in any way. Your worst moments when you’ve given into that sin once again and the voices of shame and hypocrisy are deafening. It’s easier to think that God and any other human witness to your behavior are merely tolerating you, because how could this mess merit any love?

When we find ourselves in the shoes of the prodigal son, clothed in rags of unrighteousness and still a long way off from the God we at some point wished dead, that’s when we find He has already run to us and said, “Yes child, I died, and my death was for you – not for you to be free of Me but for you to be restored to Me for joy. The best robe has been prepared for you; welcome home.” When Jesus took the sin of the world upon His holy self and suffered the horrific consequences for them, the Father still loved Him, and eventually raised Him to new life. Now that we have received His forgiveness for all our sin, past, present, and future, and have been donned with the robe of righteousness, how could the Father love us any less? It is profound, and it is our healing.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:6-8

To pursue perfection in achievements, in the opinions of others, in our relationships, and in ourselves is to chase an illusion. When we can identify the lies of perfectionism for what they are, we can take our first step towards freedom from their entanglement and the subsequent exhaustion. As we run to Christ, the Perfect One, allowing Him to cover and fill us as only He can, He receives the glory and we receive the true and lasting joy.

On Thinking Small, Dreaming Big, and Being Loved

It is a strange thing to be profoundly loved, to know you have been created for a high purpose to God’s glory, and to also be acutely aware that your life is fleeting, a drop in the bucket at best, even if lived out to 80, 90, 100 really good years.

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.” Ecclesiastes 1:9-11

These are long, hidden days where the monotony can cloud over me in a mind-numbing fog of back and forth between food prep in the kitchen (because why are we eating everything and nothing ALL DAY LONG) and oft-feigned excitement about playing hours of make-believe in the living room. I’ve got a heart full of dreams that may or may not come to pass. I appreciate the encouragement to pursue them, and pursue them I will, but I’m not convinced they are guaranteed if I just believe and work hard enough at it all. I’ve got vision and desire to be involved in changing the world, but some days I can barely manage my impatience with my kids. I am brought down from the clouds over and over, to right here, right now, change starts here.

I’m fully known and seen and significant, and yet I am small and fleeting like the grass, here one day and gone the next. If my work in a pediatric ICU has taught me anything, it has taught me this: Nothing about my life is a given, and the world goes on without me. I may live 95 years and leave a legacy as a thought-provoking author with phenomenal children who will be lights in their generation. I may live just one more month and all my thoughts of book writing, all my dreams for my children, all my vision to be a part of world-changing work could die with me in a freak accident. It’s not to be morbid, it’s to say that I matter and I don’t all in the same breath, and there’s something strangely liberating about both sides of that coin. I am restless against all my constraints – the incessant duties of motherhood, the indiscriminate nature of potential disease and tragedy, the maddening inertia of writer’s block. But one day my kids will leave the nest, and one day someone else could write the book, probably better. It wouldn’t mean I was loved less or tasked with any lesser purpose. It would just be my kids’ time to go, and someone else’s time to realize an important dream.

At the end of the day, what I realize is this.

Nothing is owed to me, but grace has been given for today.

So I’ll play make-believe and stack blocks, and I’ll make the effort over and over to not send a message that the passions of my little ones are any less significant than my own. And I’ll write, and dream, and if there is a God-ordained time for some fruition of these seeds in my heart, then it will be from Him and for Him.

When You Think of Me

To each of my girls, ages 1 and 3:

Our days run into each other with repetition and predictability. Wake up, eat cereal, play, make ourselves presentable, drop you off at school, pick you up, eat, play, bathe, watch TV, play make-believe, read books, wrestle, argue over toys, argue over snacks, cleanup time, evening meltdown, Bible stories, snuggles, sleep. Every day I grow restless over the humdrum, but every night I can’t get enough of the cuddles and try to hold on to your baby-like features just a little bit longer. Our days don’t change much but you do, somehow, in secret when I’m not looking. You’re thinking about things more. You remember things more. I can’t help but wonder what you are starting to make of yourself, of me, of relationships, of God. Everyone says the mother-daughter dynamic is complicated. Are we really doomed?

I want you to think of me as gentle, but oh the times when my voice is harsh. I want you to think of me as steadfast, but oh the times I’m tipped over the edge without forewarning. All of my flesh wants you to think of me as the perfect mom, but there is nothing like the refining fire of family in constant proximity in its ability to reveal every shortcoming.

But I heard you ask a question the other day. I know you heard and learned it from me, and it gives my heart so much hope.

“Will you forgive me?”

When you think of me, if you think of good things, then thank Jesus, our best model of love and grace. But what I really want is for you to think of me as a Mama who asks for your forgiveness.

When Mama asks for forgiveness, it means we can be confident forgiveness is a thing. There is real forgiveness to be granted for real sin. Sometimes your Daddy, meaning so well, excuses Mama’s sin by saying Mama’s just had a long day. The thing is, every day is a long day for an innately selfish soul asked to die to herself to serve others over and over and over again in the context of parenthood. It is not ok for me to justify my sin by saying I had a long day. My call is to love and serve you as Christ has loved and served me. When I fail, my confidence in coming to you for forgiveness is the confidence that forgiveness exists in fullness and power, because Christ first forgave us.

When Mama asks for forgiveness, it means Mama is not perfect, and my lack of perfect will hurt you. It means you are worth enough for Mama to learn to lay down my pride and defensiveness and propensity for self-justification in order to tenderly acknowledge that the state of your heart matters, so much.

When Mama asks for forgiveness, it means Mama needs your forgiveness to have a whole and free heart. We were made for love, and you and I were given to each other to love as only a Mama and her little girl can love. I need your forgiveness to live an unhindered life with you the way we were intended to live. When forgiveness enters in, we are not doomed.

When Mama asks for forgiveness, it means Mama wants you to know Jesus. For you to lay down your own heart to show me love when I have hurt you badly, you have to know the One who laid His heart down for you that way first. That’s the real thing.

Living in the house of grace is where we can live free. You and I are going to go through our storms but I want to live this life with you.